Trains of Thought
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XXXV. Striking Out Again

It’s a day after a rail strike and the 7:38 train to London is full. I’m on a priority seat, on the inside by the window. The woman on the outside seat let me pass to sit there. She had to get up and stand against an incoming stream. It wasn’t easy. People were rushing through the train to get to the few seats still available. I was lucky to be on the platform at the right place to be first in line standing by the train doors as they opened. A cyclist exited generating an eddy to move in through, un-rushed but firmly and with purpose because I could see a few empty seats. A few seconds determine whether you will sit or stand for fifty minutes.

There’s a smell of tea tree oil from the person next to me. Masks do not filter smells. It could be worse. One passenger in twenty wears a mask. Sometimes when people look at me I sense a disapproving or condescending smile aimed at the motive behind the mask.

I’m listening to Ruediger Safranski’s book on Schiller read by Safranski himself: I think he’s a tenor. It’s easy to lose concentration with an audiobook. It is 1766 and Schiller’s father is taking a position in Ludwigsburg. Ludwigsburg was ruled by Herzog Karl Eugen, who turned Ludwigsburg into the capital of the European Rokoko and made his people suffer for it. He accumulated enormous debts and almost bankrupted the state. Voltaire lent money to maintain this second Versailles built on the back of the common folk. Thackeray wrote about the place in Barry Lyndon.* Schiller is a “Zaungast” to it all: a visitor who sees the spectacle from a distance. In 1773 Schiller is directed away from his wish to follow a spiritual path and instead he is sent to the Militärische Pflanzschule (Military Nursery), also known as the Karlsschule, because it was personally overseen by the Herzog who was a father-figure there. Schiller begins by studying law, which he does not enjoy.

The train was full after Baldock and too full to get on at Hitchin. A lady with a “baby on board” button doesn’t want to take my seat when I offer it to her after trying for some time to catch her attention so that I can make this offer. Perhaps she is daunted because it’s not an easy path to push through from where she is to the inside seat where I am. 

In Ludwigsburg in Schiller’s time, gardens were enveloped in glass and heated during winter and you could walk through the artificially well-tempered environment in summer dress. And then in summer, salt was spread on the main Allee (avenue) to simulate snow and the contrarian Herzog drove past his subjects on a horse-drawn snow sleigh.

At another stop someone, perhaps a passenger, shouts at everyone to move together closer and there is a bit of shuffling and then a bit of laughing and then the sound of the doors beeping and closing.

The Herzog Karl Eugen leaves Venice abruptly to return to Ludwigsburg when his debts mount and he is unable to repay them. He was taught by Friedrich der Grosse whose advice to work for the people seems to have had the opposite effect on Karl Eugen. The Herzog sold soldiers to finance his luxuries. He increased taxes and violated the constitution. He was an 18th century Boris Johnson. Critics were imprisoned.

At Finsbury Park a man in a yellow shirt moves up the aisle to stand by the row where I’m sitting. He wears an expensive sports watch, very large white training shoes, Bose headphones. He has a large iPhone with a sticker on the back, which I initially take to be a smiley face, but it’s actually an upside down (sad) smiley, next to a sticker that says “I’ve had my Covid vaccination.” I wonder whether this is an intentional arrangement of stickers. I see him again at the ticket barrier to the underground Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan lines.

A Quarter-Year Ago in April at about the same time

The 7:54 is as it was before, crowded. I walk to the very back. I’ve never been here at the back before on a train to London. My hope is that there will be more space here. Yes, there are a few empty seats and I take one by the window at a table seat: “May I sit here?” A woman wearing a white jacket that looks like it has maximised potential to pick up dust briefly smiles at me.  She has set up a workspace on the table with coffee cup (always dangerous) and a USB dongle that says “Jury’s Inn.” She wears a necklace with two rings and her skin looks very tanned. Next to her is a man with a rugged phone, practical water repelling jacket over shirt, shirt collar flat over the jacket, shirt opened to second button. The woman rummages in her bag and then brushes her hair and then unplugs her computer’s power supply and then takes a picture of the outside world as we pass Hitchin and then starts typing on her phone, probably sending that picture to a friend.

Two men in blue shirts sit opposite each other at the next table. One of them grimaces and sucks his thumb as he checks his phone, then rubs his face, then looks up, then folds his right arm into his left armpit and reads his phone, then reverts to two handed action, occasionally looking pensively into the distance.

*BARRY LYNDON (In Ludwigsburg), William Makepeace Thackeray

There was no Court in Europe at which strangers were more welcome than at that of the noble Duke of X—-; none where pleasure was more eagerly sought after, and more splendidly enjoyed. The Prince did not inhabit his capital of S—-, but, imitating in every respect the ceremonial of the Court of Versailles, built himself a magnificent palace at a few leagues from his chief city, and round about his palace a superb aristocratic town, inhabited entirely by his nobles, and the officers of his sumptuous Court. The people were rather hardly pressed, to be sure, in order to keep up this splendour; for his Highness’s dominions were small, and so he wisely lived in a sort of awful retirement from them, seldom showing his face in his capital, or seeing any countenances but those of his faithful domestics and officers. His palace and gardens of Ludwigslust were exactly on the French model. Twice a week there were Court receptions, and grand Court galas twice a month. There was the finest opera out of France, and a ballet unrivalled in splendour; on which his Highness, a great lover of music and dancing, expended prodigious sums. It may be because I was then young, but I think I never saw such an assemblage of brilliant beauty as used to figure there on the stage of the Court theatre, in the grand mythological ballets which were then the mode, and in which you saw Mars in red-heeled pumps and a periwig, and Venus in patches and a hoop. They say the costume was incorrect, and have changed it since; but for my part, I have never seen a Venus more lovely than the Coralie, who was the chief dancer, and found no fault with the attendant nymphs, in their trains, and lappets, and powder. These operas used to take place twice a week, after which some great officer of the Court would have his evening, and his brilliant supper, and the dice-box rattled everywhere, and all the world played. I have seen seventy play-tables set out in the grand gallery of Ludwigslust, besides the faro-bank; where the Duke himself would graciously come and play, and win or lose with a truly royal splendour.

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